Small fish in a murky pond

Small fish in a murky pond

MPs taking cash for questions or smuggling out people on fake passports are only the small fry

Not too long ago, I went to meet a member of the Parliament at his official residence. He lived in one of the many single-storied quarters built next to each other with a common lawn, in Lutyen's Delhi. There were 50 odd people hanging around outside his house. I asked one of them where the MP was. One told me that he was inside and I could go and look him up. Quite evidently, the MP did not follow any protocol nor did he seem too concerned about his security. Once inside his living room, I found another 50 odd people sitting around a bed smoking and chatting in whispers. On the bed lay someone who was covered from head to toe in a bed sheet and snoring loudly. He seemed totally unmindful of the presence of so many people around his bed. A little surprised by the scene, I tapped of one of the persons on his shoulder and asked where the MP was. Nonchalantly, he pointed at the person sleeping on the bed, "He is the MP". I said I had an appointment. "We all have appointments, but what can we do if he is sleeping?" I was in a hurry to meet him and return to my office. I tip-toed to his bed and tapped him on what I thought was his shoulder. He got up with a start and told me that he had a late night and was catching a few winks. There was no malice in him that he had been woken up from his slumber. Within no time he was up and about and shouted out to all the people waiting for him in the hall and outside to follow him. It turned out to be quite a procession. I asked him where he was taking us. "We are going to have tea now," he said. A little later, the procession culminated at a nearby tea stall and the MP shouted out his order, "quarter cup tea for all of us". The MP told me how expensive it was to be an MP. "This is an every day thing. Hundreds turn up daily and just hang around expecting me to do their big or small jobs. I cannot help every one, but I can at least give them a quarter cup of tea." He explained how much an MP has to spend in his constituency and in the capital. "We are expected to give cash gifts during weddings and other family functions of our constituents. If you add all that up, it works out to quite a big amount." During elections, too, he said: "No one works for us till we pay up. There is no party loyalty or ideology. And if the impression gains ground that we are cash-starved, our workers desert us."

Although MPs are better paid now than ever before, it is a difficult life for many backbenchers and those who do not have the support of moneybags or corporate houses. What exacerbates their misery is when they have to rub shoulders in Parliament with high-profile MPs who have no qualms about spending copious funds without batting an eyelid.

Little wonder that many financially challenged MPs end up taking cash for questions from lobbyists and corporate houses. Others get lured by travel agents to smuggle people out to Western destinations by using their status to wangle visas from strict foreign missions. From each of such people trying to go abroad, an MP gets about Rs 5-10 lakhs. The BJP MP, Om Prakash Katara, who was recently caught trying to smuggle out a woman by posing her as his wife, is not the only one who has done this. Some years ago, enforcement agencies in India were tipped off by a foreign country about a former chief minister of a southern state who had smuggled four people to USA who then disappeared after they landed at the airport.  

There are many more such stories, but the crimes committed by these faceless MP’s are far less in magnitude than those by high-profile parliamentarians who park themselves in parliamentary committees to look after their own business interests or those of their business barons. In the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) appointed to look into the securities scam, there were MPs who were in the committee that represented a manifest case of “conflict of interest” but the Parliament was too weak to make an example of them. When bigger crimes go unchecked in the Parliament, it only emboldens cash-strapped parliamentarians to chance their arm at lesser ones.